Bahrain’s PR Campaign Is Doomed to Fail
Hey, do you happen to be the proprietor of a family-run dictatorship in the Middle East? Tired of seeing stories about your country that are all, “Bahrain Princess Accused of Torture” and “Teenager Killed in Bahrain Anniversary Protests” and “The US Sold a Bunch of Weapons to Bahrain During Its Brutal Crackdown” and even “King of Bahrain Beats Up Arab Pop Star on a Yacht”? That sure is some bad “optics,” as they say in the business, and you probably can’t repair your reputation solely through articles titled “Bahrain a Land of tolerance…” in government-run media outlets, especially when that ellipsis might be an indication that even the “journalists” on your payroll can barely believe the shit they’re writing.
One way to solve your image problem would to welcome reform and stop committing gross human rights violations—ha, ha, just kidding! Clearly that’s not on the table, so you need to spend millions on PR and invite journalists to your brand new Formula 1 race track to see how lovely it is. According to Bahrain Watch, that’s what the country’s regime has been doing: It’s spent at least $32 million on image management since the start of the Arab Spring. I’m familiar with this because one of these companies threatened to sue the Guardianfor libel after I wrote an article with Nabeel Rajab which accused the Bahraini security forces of torturing employees at the F1 track. The PR firm did not question that torture had taken place, just that it had not happened on the premises of the F1 track. The libel threat was eventually withdrawn after a footnote was added to the article, but the point was made: We have money and we will bully and threaten you if you criticize us.
I Was Tortured as a Bahraini Political Prisoner
Thirty-six-year-old Bahraini journalist Ahmed Radhi was one of the roughly 500 prisoners of conscience who were detained following the citizen uprising against Bahrain’s government that began in February 2011. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights estimates that the country has the highest number of political prisoners per capita worldwide. Ahmed told us about the supposed reasons for his detention and the extremely poor conditions he faced while in prison.
Being a journalist in Bahrain comes with many risks. The press has no freedom to move and work independently without being harassed by the regime. I was investigated by the Ministry of Information for reporting on the US presence in Bahrain, but it was a May 13 phone interview with the BBC, during which I criticized a proposed union of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, that led to my recent arrest. Clearly, America and Saudi Arabia are topics that the Bahraini regime doesn’t want anyone to discuss.
I was arrested on May 16—police and masked civilians surrounded and broke into my father’s house at around 3:30 AM without a court order. I was interrogated from the moment I was arrested until I reached the Criminal Investigation Department building.
Things Are Still Going Terrible in Bahrain
It’s been 21 months since the small desert island nation of Bahrain began its Arab Spring-inspired uprising. Since declaring its independence in 1971, Bahrain’s constitutional monarchy has had one prime minister, Khalidah ibn Sulman Al Khalifah, who is also the uncle of the current king and the brother of the last one. Unlike states which have been transformed by protests and revolution like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the Bahrain government—which is controlled by a Sunni minority and often accused of oppressing Shiites—hasn’t come close to toppling. Demonstrations in Bahrain petered out quickly last year after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations lent the regime some troops to use in a violent crackdown against dissidents. The turmoil in other Middle Eastern countries has taken international media attention away from the human rights violations in Bahrain, but that doesn’t make the situation there any less appalling.
Last November, the Bahraini government admitted to “instances of excessive force and mistreatment of detainees.” A few days after that admission, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry—which was led by human rights expert M. Cherif Bassiouni and commissioned by King Hamad to investigate the violence—released 26 reform recommendations that the king promised to implement.
One year later and only three of those recommendations have been carried out, according to a report from the Project on Middle East Democracy. Just last month, Bahrain completely banned protesting, and a few weeks ago 31 people connected to the opposition had their citizenships revoked. To find out more about this mostly ignored crisis, I spoke with Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the daughter of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the cofounder of the organization who was sentenced to life in prison by a military court in June 2011.
VICE: Hi Maryam. How do you think human rights have changed one year after the BICI report?
Maryam al-Khawaja: It’s gotten worse. There have been five cases of people getting arrested for tweeting. Someone was imprisoned for two months for defaming the king on Twitter. There are constant attacks against people who speak out and criticize the government.
Haven’t there been some cases where the police were put on trial for using excessive force against protestors?
The very few cases that have been brought to court were all lower rank police officers. There were several cases where police officers were acquitted or found innocent in cases where they were charged in extrajudicial killings. There was only one case where an officer was found guilty—he shot someone at point-blank range and only received seven years in prison. He hasn’t been arrested or served the time despite being sentenced. If you look at the higher-level officials who should have been held accountable, most of them have held their positions or even been promoted.